Indians protest reforms

Pakistani lawyers burn an effigy depicting US President Barack Obama during a protest against an anti-Islam film made in the US.

BHUBANESWAR/NEW DELHI – Schools, businesses and government offices were shut in many parts of India today as protesters blocked roads and trains as part of a one-day nationwide strike against sweeping economic reforms announced by the government last week.

The main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party and smaller parties from both the political left and right called the strike to protest against a 14 per cent increase in heavily subsidized diesel prices, and a government decision that opens the door to foreign supermarket chains investing in India.

The measures, part of a package of economic reforms aimed at boosting a sharply slowing economy, have triggered a political firestorm. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s biggest ally, the Trinamool Congress party, said it would pull out of the coalition on Friday unless the reforms were reversed, raising the risk of an early election.

The Confederation of Indian Industry urged Singh not to yield to the pressure, saying the reforms, long demanded by Indian business leaders, were crucial for economic growth.

“Good economics seldom makes for good politics,” it said.

The CII said the one-day strike had cost the economy $2.3 billion in lost production and trade.

It did not say how it had arrived at the figure, but hundreds of thousands of owners of mom-and-pop “kirana” stores, who fear the retail reform will drive them out of business, were reported to have shut for the day in protest. Bigger companies gave staff the day off or allowed them to work from home.

A usually bustling Bangalore, India’s IT and outsourcing hub, wore a deserted look as offices and shops closed down and public transport came to a halt. But in Mumbai, the country’s financial capital, banks and offices were open as usual.

Across the country, morning commuters were left stranded at train stations and bus stops as protesters squatted on railway tracks and laid siege to bus depots. Supporters of the BJP and other opposition parties also burned effigies of Singh and blocked roads with burning tires.

“If we don’t protest now, the central government will eliminate the poor and middle-class families,” said Santi Barik as she protested in Bhubaneswar, capital of the eastern state of Odisha.

Government offices, businesses, schools and banks in Bhubaneswar were shut, and similar shutdowns were reported in other cities, including Hyderabad, the IT hub that is home to offices of Microsoft Corp and Google Inc.

In Bangalore, most of the 3,500 staff employed by Intel Corp and 10,000 staff at Cisco Systems Inc were asked to work from home, company spokesmen said. Infosys Ltd and Wipro Ltd gave workers the day off.

On the outskirts of Kolkata, capital of West Bengal, protesters smashed car windows and damaged buses as panic-stricken commuters fled their vehicles, police said. In Bihar state, protesters marched through the streets of the capital, Patna, sitting on buffaloes.

“We will be left with nothing but bullock carts and buffaloes to move around in towns due to frequent hikes in fuel,” said protester Punam Devi.(Reuters)

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